7 May 2009

From 'paper folding' to free elections

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the fraudulent local elections in East Germany in 1989 that mark the beginning of the end of the GDR (or should that be the end of the beginning of the end of the GDR??) which mobilised activists throughout the republic to go to polling stations, make unofficial tallies of the results and compare these to the officially published results. The picture shows Egon Krenz announcing the results next to an image of peace prayers to protest against the elections, and a newscaster on the election results programme.

Of course, few people believed that the 99% score for the Socialist Unity Party (SED) and its allies really represented the people's will, but for the first time in recent history there were people willing to say so and to bring forward the proof. There were always regional variations in voting of course, but hardly ever, if at all, did the official version of popular acclamation fall below 90%. There was also sometimes a macabre delight in "poor" poll results. I can remember watching the 1984 "results programme" in the Bohemian quarter of Prenzlauer Berg when my friends were delighted that the district again scored the lowest official turnout and the lowest number of "yes" votes for the official candidates. Five years later, there was increasing discontent about the facade of elections that transcended the usual circles of known activists. Even members of the Christian Democratic Union and the Liberal Democratic Party - two of the "block parties" allied to the SED and that followed its dictates - began to get agitated about the elections and the way they were organized (of course even if they had published the real results the SED would have had a huge victory, but the concern was to ensure that it received a triumphalistic result).

Hans Michael Kloth in his book, "Vom 'Zettelfalten' zum freien Wählen", (From 'paper folding' to free elections) hes set down the nine-months chronology from these rigged elections to the free parliamentary elections of March 1990. The title refers to the fact that in GDR times voters were simply expected to take the list of candidates, fold it in half, and place it in the urn, without even going to the voting booth.

The Evangelical Church in Central Germany as part of its "Holy Disorder" campaign, has taken a different path by opening a blog site for people to share their recollections of the1989 elections and their significance for the popular protests. Christoph Kähler, then a theology professor in Leipzig, and now a bishop, describes the elections as being unlike anything he had experienced before. Instead of slightly anxiously taking the ballot form and demonstratively going into a polling booth, as at previous polls, there was now a queue of people who were waiting for an opportunity to exercise their right, constitutionally-guaranteed but in practice ignored, of taking part in a secret ballot. Other people didn't bother waiting but sat at tables taking a pencil to the preordained list of candidates. Kähler's wife went to the count to try and keep a tally of no votes - "the almost 100% approval that appeared in the newspapers the next day was so obviously fake that it brought the political dissatisfaction with this system of lies to a new high point".

Christian Dietrich describes the fraudulent elections as marking the beginning of the role of the Leipzig peace prayers as a ritualised space for protest. With fellow students in February 1989 he decided to form an "Initiative for the Democratic Renewal of Society" to call for the SED to be de-elected (this Stasi document includes information about these efforts). Hearing that he was being searched for by the security forces he left Leipzig shortly before the elections and went back to his home town of Jena, where a protest demonstration on the eve of the elections was being broken up by police. The day after the elections (a Sunday) protesters gathered in the Leipzig Nikolaikirche for the peace prayers. Rows of police surrounded the church to prevent a demonstration forming that would march to the centre of the city. But there were other views too. Sinnie writes that she regularly took part in the "paper folding" exercise - although she was unhappy about many things she approved of the GDR's peace policy, and the fact that East German soldiers did not serve abroad. Since unification, she writes, all the parties are the same and you have just as little influence on what they do. She no longer votes as a protest against the Bundeswehr taking part in foreign missions: "Now I'm very curious to see if my contribution, which departs from the party line, will be placed in this forum."


Kristine said...

Hi Stephen - Those days of folded paper protest and other movements supported or initiated by church people must have been heady days. One wonders what the energy level in the churches in the former Eastern bloc is now. What motivates them politically and socially or is there a general apathy born of prosperity and/or disillusionment in the post-Wall era.

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